Friday, January 27, 2012

Researching the Keys to Successful Citizen Science Projects

I've been working on a new post about the makings of a successful citizen science project.  It looks at  the many projects we've discussed and the attributes that make them publicly popular and scientifically useful.   I've found some common threads and want to highlight them as examples future project scientists can learn from.

During my research I came across an article from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (Bonney, Rick, et al)with a unique perspective on the problem.  You can find it in the December 2009 edition of BioScience available here.  It's a few years old but this group's experience operating the Project FeederWatch and Backyard Bird Count programs, as well as developing the useful eBird tool, means they speak from valuable experience.  So I wanted their opinion, and your reactions to it, as I record my own observations.

A few key points include:
  • Since most citizen scientists are amateur observers, design data collections that rely on basic skills that require little training.
  • Simple, easy-to-explain projects are more popular with users.  Although the questions can be scientifically complex the basic concepts should be understandable by an everyday person.
  • Studies with a "large spatial or temporal scope" are best suited to citizen science since they take advantage of the wide number (and type) of users who may participate.
  • Standardizing data collection criteria and techniques is vital to data quality when multiple participants are all supplying observations.
  • Providing educational opportunities keep users interested, as well as "certifications" for successfully completing any required training (no matter how minimal).
  • Make study results AND study data available to the public.  If you ask people to collect data they should be trusted to view and analyze it themselves.
  • Disseminating results broadly and publicly helps demonstrate the importance of participation and encourages people to continue volunteering to help your project.
These are just some of the author's thoughts.  But what about yours?  I'd love to hear your opinions and include them in my upcoming piece.  Do you agree with the items points listed above?  Are there important concepts missing?  Are there good examples of each of these in action?  Any insight you can provide will be quite helpful.

Thank you (in advance) for the assistance, and I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.


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  1. I've recently begun looking at citizen science projects - particularly those that are online (citizen cyberscience). One feature that many of these have in common is a competitive element - especially shared computing initiatives. Nearly all of these projects have leader boards, teams, and occasionally competitions. This seems to be very important to those who participate in these projects when one reads the comments on the user forums. Other citizen cyberscience projects such as 'Foldit' and stardust@home also have an important element of competition. While I appreciate that this may not be the case with many of the more ecologically- based projects such as the ones coming out of Cornell. I think it needs to be considered as part of your list of attributes as more citizen science projects emerge online. Thanks!

  2. Vickie -
    Thanks for the insight. I'm in complete agreement...the projects with competitions add levels of accomplishment and rewards that really engage users. That's extra true for reward programs such as XPrizes and Innocentive that provide actual prizes. But even challenges just for the fun of it (like FoldIt) keep people's attention too. I'm definitely adding this as one of my keys (hopefully publishing Thursday). So thanks again!